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8

Chen had been surprised to see 'Leopard' Wei, whom he has sent along with 'Pagoda' Yang to Beijing to discover what the Manchu court was up to. "What are you doing here, Ninth Brother?" he asked. "And where is Twelfth Brother?"

Wei jumped down from the edge of the hole to report to the Great Helmsman.

"Twelfth Brother and I went Beijing as ordered, but for a long time we discovered nothing," he began. "Then one day, we happened to see that traitor Zhang Zhaozhong and Master Ma Zhen in the street."

Chen nodded. "So they went to Beijing," he said. "I was wondering how Zhang managed to escape. Master Ma told us he would take him back to Wudang mountain."

"Have you seen Zhang recently?" asked Xu, who was listening.

"Just a short while ago. He is very dangerous." Chen told them what had happened at the Manchu camp.

"Master Ma and Zhang were walking alone talking animatedly, and they didn't see us," Wei continued. "We suspected they may have joined forces against us, and carefully followed them to a house in an alleyway. We waited until after dark, but they didn't come out again, so we decided to go in to have a look. We two are no match even for Zhang by himself, let alone he and his martial brother together, so once over the wall into the courtyard, we lay dead still, not daring to even breath. After a long time, we heard talking in a room nearby and went across to investigate. Through a crack in the window, we saw Master Ma lying on a kang while that traitor Zhang paced back and forth. The two were arguing. We didn't dare to look for too long and squatted down to listen. It seems Zhang had insisted he had to go to Beijing to sort out a few private financial matters before he could go to Wudang Mountain, and Master Ma had agreed. A few days after they got there, the Emperor returned to Beijing as well. Zhang said that the Emperor had ordered him to go to the Muslim regions on important business."

"What important business?" Chen asked quickly.

"He didn't say exactly, but he apparently had to go and look for someone." Chen frowned. "Master Ma spoke to him very sternly and told him he should immediately resign from his official post, but Zhang said he could not refuse an Imperial edict. If he did, he said, he was afraid the whole of Wudang Mountain would be stamped flat by the Emperor's troops. Master Ma told him that the whole country was under the heel of the Manchus, and that by comparison the destruction of Wudang Mountain would be nothing to grieve about. The more they argued, the more adamant they both became. Eventually, Master Ma jumped off the kang, absolutely furious, and shouted: 'I promised our friends of the Red Flower Society!' to which Zhang replied: 'Those rebellious bandits. Why take them seriously?' Then there was a metallic sound as if Master Ma had drawn his sword. I had a look through the window crack and saw Master Ma with sword in hand, his face black with rage, as he roared: 'Don't you remember our teacher's last wishes? You ungrateful pupil! You are truly shameless, becoming a running dog of the Manchu court. I will fight you to the death.' Zhang appeared to soften. He sighed and said: 'If that's the way you feel, we'll leave for Wudang Mountain tomorrow.' Master Ma then resheathed his sword and went to sleep on the kang while Zhang sat on the chair nearby. He appeared undecided about something. His body shook slightly. Twelfth Brother and I were worried he would discover us, and wanted to wait for him to sleep before leaving. Almost an hour passed, but still he didn't sleep. He got up several times and then sat down again. Finally, he bit his teeth together and said softly: 'Brother Ma.' Master Ma was by this time sleeping very soundly and snoring slightly. Zhang quietly walked over to the kang"

Princess Fragrance suddenly let out a scream. She didn't understand what Wei was saying, but she could feel the dark, sinister tone of his voice, and was terrified by it. She took hold of Chen's hand and snuggled up to him. Zhou Qi glanced at her in hatred.

Wei continued. "Zhang went to the kang, then lunged forward and sprang back again. Master Ma gave a wail of agony and jumped up, blood pouring from both his eye sockets. Both his eyes had been gouged out by the dog-hearted traitor."

Absolutely enraged, Chen leapt up and slammed his fist into the side of the pit sending sand flying in all directions.

"I swear I will kill that traitor," he said through clenched teeth. Princess Fragrance had never seen him so angry, and she tugged on his sleeve in fear.

Wei's voice shook as he went on: "Master Ma went silent. His face looked horrible. He walked slowly towards Zhang, then suddenly kicked out with his leg. Zhang leapt out of the way, and Master Ma's foot slammed into the kang. Zhang looked a little shaken, and tried to get out, but Master Ma made it to the door first and stood straining his ears to hear Zhang's movements. Zhang suddenly laughed, and Master Ma kicked out with his left leg in the direction of the sound. But Zhang stuck his sword out in front of him and Ma's leg hit the blade and was cut clean off." Zhou Qi ground her teeth and stabbed the walls of the pit with her sword.

"By this time, Twelth Brother and I could stand it no longer. We burst through the window into the room and fought with Zhang for only a second before he escaped, probably scared that we were not alone. We chased after him, but Twelfth Brother was hit by his golden needles, and I had to help him back into the house. I tried to stop Master Ma's bleeding, but he died after saying only a few words.

"What did he say?" asked Chen. A cold wind suddenly blew down on them and they all shivered.

"He said 'Tell Brother Lu and Yu Yutong to avenge my death!' Just then, some people outside who had heard the fighting started shouting, so I helped Twelfth Brother out and we returned to our lodgings. The next day, I went back to have a look and saw Master Ma's body had already been taken away. Twelfth Brother had been hit by five golden needles, but I extracted them for him and he's now convalescing in Twin Willows Lane in Beijing.

"Zhang said the Emperor wanted him to come to the Northwest to look for someone, and I thought perhaps it could be your teacher, Great Helmsman. I remember you said once that there were two important items relating to the Emperor being kept by your teacher, Master Yuan. So I came out with the others to warn him."

"How is Twelfth Brother?" Chen asked.

"His wounds are serious, but luckily not fatal," Wei replied.

By now, the cold wind was blowing hard, and thick, leaden clouds were gathering above them.

"It's going to snow soon," Princess Fragrance said, and moved even closer to Chen.

Zhou Qi could control herself no longer. "What did she say?" she demanded.

Chen was surprised by her outraged tone. "She said it's going to snow."

"Huh! How would she know?" She paused for a moment, then suddenly added: "Great Helmsman, just who it is that you love? Sister Huo Qingtong is a nice girl and I won't allow her to be cheated."

"Mistress Huo Qingtong is indeed a nice person and we all have a great deal of respect for her" Chen began.

"Then why did you cast her aside as soon as you met her beautiful sister?" Zhou Qi interrupted.

Chen blushed, and Luo Bing came to his rescue. "The Great Helmsman, like the rest of us, has only met Sister Huo Qingtong once. She is just an ordinary friend. You can't start talking about whether he loves her or not."

"What are you supporting him for?" Zhou Qi demanded, even more agitated. "She gave him an antique dagger, and the way the Great Helmsman looked at her, it was plainly a case of love at first sight"

Princess Fragrance listened to them talking excitedly and looked on with her big round eyes, full of curiosity.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong already had a suitor before she met me," Chen said. "Even if I had such an intention, what would be the point of unnecessarily making things difficult for myself?"

Zhou Qi stared at him in surprise. "Is that true?"

"Why would I deceive you?"

"Well, that's all right, then," she said, immediately changing her tone. "You are a good man. I was wrong to accuse you. I'm sorry." The others laughed at her frankness. Zhou Qi took Princess Fragrance's hand and squeezed it. Suddenly, they felt a wave of coldness on their faces and looked up to see snow flakes as big as goose feathers floating down towards them.

"You were right," she said. "It's snowing!"

"If we don't get reinforcements to rescue us, we are going to die here," said Luo Bing.

"Master Muzhuolun will certainly send out scouts to look for his daughter and the Great Helmsman when they fail to return," Xu replied.

"I`m sure they have," Chen said. "But we have come so far south, I'm afraid they may have difficulty finding us."

"Well then, we will have to send someone out to get help."

"I'll go!" volunteered Xin Yan.

Chen thought for a moment and then nodded. He asked Princess Fragrance to write a note to her father, and Xin Yan took a writing brush and some ink from his knapsack and gave them to her.

"Take Sister Luo Bing's white horse," Chen said to Xin Yan. "We will make a diversionary attack to the east, and you can make a break for it to the west." He then gave him directions to the Muslim camp. On the signal, the heroes leapt out of the pit and charged eastwards with shouts and battle cries leaving only Zhou Qi and Princess Fragrance behind. Xin Yan led the white horse out of the hole, jumped onto its back and galloped off westwards. The Manchu troops loosed off a few arrows but none came even close to hitting him. Once the heroes were sure Xin Yan had escaped, they retreated back to the pit.

By this time, the snow was falling heavily and the ground about them had been transformed into a vast white carpet. They settled down for the night, but all slept badly except for Princess Fragrance was still fast asleep when dawn broke. Her hair and shoulders were covered with snow which shuddered slightly as she breathed. Luo Bing laughed gently. "This child is not the least bit concerned," she said.

Time dragged by and Xu frowned deeply. "Why is there still no sign of a rescue attempt?" he asked slowly.

"Could Xin Yan have met some trouble on the road?" said Wen.

"What I'm worried about is something else," replied Xu.

"What is it?" Zhou Qi demanded. "Stop mumbling and get on with it."

"Great Helmsman, who makes the decisions in the Muslim camp?" Xu asked. "Master Muzhuolun or Mistress Huo Qingtong?"

"Both, apparently. Master Muzhuolun discusses everything with his daughter."

"If Huo Qingtong refused to send out soldiers, then things would be difficult," Xu continued. The others saw what he was getting at.

"How could you say such a thing about Sister Huo Qingtong?" Zhou Qi demanded, jumping up. "Doesn't she already have a suitor? And even if she was jealous of her sister, would she refuse to save the man she loved?"

"When women become jealous, they are capable of anything," answered Xu. Zhou Qi began shouting angrily, and Princess Fragrance woke with a start. The heroes had only met Huo Qingtong once and although she seemed nice, they knew very little about her. Xu's words seemed not unreasonable.


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